A group of state lawmakers was briefed Wednesday on a study of the legalization of marijuana being conducted by the RAND Corp.
The nonprofit’s Drug Policy Research Center was contracted to prepare an in-depth study of the potential financial and social impacts of legalization; its final report is due in January. Members of the Joint Fiscal Committee got an outline of the study Wednesday, and a statewide public hearing followed on Vermont Interactive Technologies.
Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said the study is expected to be the most comprehensive analysis of its kind. It will incorporate observations from Washington state and Colorado, which have legalized pot for recreational use. On Election Day, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., passed initiatives in favor of legalization.
Beau Kilmer, co-director of RAND’s drug policy research center, outlined the shape of his group’s research. Kilmer said RAND does not have a position on marijuana legalization.
Kilmer said lawmakers should expect a near book-length treatise covering four major areas: the marijuana “landscape” in Vermont, from market demand to the money spent on enforcing current laws; an analysis of health and safety issues that put the growing body of research into context; alternative policy designs for taxation and regulation, should Vermont choose legalization; and financial projections about consumption, revenues and related costs.
He stressed that pot remains illegal under federal law. An August 2013 U.S. Department of Justice memo indicates that, for the time being, prosecutors under the current administration will not block state-by-state legalization, so long as strong regulatory systems are in place. But technically, Kilmer said, that policy could change.
RAND has identified nine areas of inquiry to inform lawmakers’ decisions:
1. Production: How will the number of producers and their production methods be regulated?
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2. Profit motive: Does Vermont want to allow for-profit companies to enter the market, find other ways to raise revenues from nonprofits or control distribution through the state?
3. Promotions: How will advertising be regulated in a way that satisfies the state’s interests without infringing on constitutional free-speech rights?
4. Prevention: How will prevention messages be balanced with promotions? And how will prevention and treatment be funded until revenues start coming in, especially because marijuana use can have secondary impacts on alcohol, tobacco and opiate use?
5. Penalties: Legalization, which typically affects only people 21 years or older, does not eliminate marijuana-related police contact. How will criminal offenses and fines change, and how will driving under the influence be managed?
6. Potency: What will thresholds be for legal marijuana’s strength?
7. Purity: How will the presence of molds or pesticides, for example, be regulated — especially when it comes to edible marijuana?
8. Price: There’s a delicate balance between price, demand and revenues. How will pricing be structured and what will its effect be on the black market?
9. Permanency: How will flexibility be built into all these policies in order to respond to lessons and changing conditions?
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, was particularly concerned about the effect of legalization on the black market and enforcement. His understanding is that revenues generated in Washington have gone mostly to enforcement, leaving little in state coffers to help cover other budget demands.
Kilmer responded that enforcement costs have been slow to come down there because Washington chose to roll out legalization slowly, so the black market is still competitive.
Depending on how access and price are set, he said, the black market will be affected differently. He said the speed of rollout is one aspect of legalization lawmakers will have to set, if they choose the path of legalization.
Even more fundamental questions will need to be closely examined, he said, such as whether the goal of legalization is to eliminate the black market for the drug.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, asked about how legalization might change the culture of Vermont. Full-page ads he has seen in Colorado newspapers, for example, might be jarring to some families.
“Also in Colorado you can take pot bus tours,” Ashe said. “That visual is something that would be very different.”
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Spaulding said that depending on how regulatory levers may be set, the state could have more or less control over many of these factors. On one end of the spectrum, he said, is opening the market to commercial ventures. On the other end, Vermont could choose to control marijuana distribution the same way it controls liquor sales.
A public hearing moderated by Kilmer and Spaulding took place on closed circuit television in towns around the state Wednesday.
The debate was lively and featured reasoned arguments on both sides of the issue. Kilmer called it an “amazingly civil discussion,” to which Spaulding replied “It’s Vermont.”
Speakers against legalization expressed concerns about addiction and marijuana’s reputation as a “gateway” to harder drug use. Others cited new research on brain development in adolescents that suggests pot smoking can have adverse effects. Still others cited public safety concerns.
Rutland Mayor Chris Louras and others said they wanted Vermont to slow down and make the “decision based on facts and data.” They wanted more time to evaluate the results in Colorado and Washington.
Substance abuse counselor Debby Haskins said legalization will make some youths believe pot use is OK.
Those who support the legalization of marijuana said legalization would eliminate the black market (and its link to dealers who offer harder drugs), help regulate the potency and purity of the product and allow for the development of more medicinal, nutritional and spiritual uses for cannabis.
Rutland attorney Lars Lundeen said he sees a lot more damage caused by people using alcohol than marijuana. He said a conviction for using pot adversely affects a person’s employment prospects, and that the law is enforced unequally — with minorities and young people bearing the brunt of prosecution.
Notably, very few of the speakers on either side cited the revenue potential from taxing the sale of marijuana as a reason for or against legalization.
One man in Newport saw legalization as an agri-business opportunity.
“I’m a farmer,” he said. “If it’s legal, want to grow it.”
Earlier Wednesday, Governor Shumlin was asked about the issue at his press conference. He praised the RAND team’s work, and said the study “will give us the data we need to make an informed decision.”
He said he wants to “wait and see what the report says, and take the temperature of the legislative leadership.” He added that he is personally in favor of legalization; “the question is when.”
VTDigger’s Tom Brown contributed to this report.
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